Parents: Don't teach kids to be polite to machines

Google announced "pretty please," a feature for the Google Home virtual assistant appliance (and third-party Assistant-compatible devices) that encourages children to speak politely to the appliance.  

When kids issue a command, such as: "Tell me the weather," the feature says: "Say the magic word," and gives the weather only when children say "please." The feature is a parental option, not a hard-wired requirement.

This is a terrible idea, a toxic trend.

Children should be polite to people, and respectful of adults. They should be kind to animals. And kids should be gentle with robots robots, not because robots have feelings, but because a robot is property that belongs to someone.

But we should not teach children to be polite to virtual assistants.

In fact, early exposure to virtual assistant appliances like Google Home is a "teachable moment" -- a moment when we can teach kids that A.I. that speaks and sounds like a person is not, in fact, a person. It has no feelings. It's an object, like the toaster.

Many adults feel the impulse to be polite to virtual assistants. And adults can feel uneasy hearing children be abusive or commanding toward them. This is a human impulse, and one to be examined and overcome. 

Kids need to learn that it's OK to be polite to virtual assistants. And it's OK to be rude. It doesn't matter. The object has no feelings, and no harm is done. 

In fact, when kids or adults use Google Search, they don't say "please." They issue a command and the servers obey. Just because engineers have constructed a natural sounding voice to interact with doesn't change the reality that a human is using a tool. 

Worse, the be-polite-to-virtual-assistant trend places machines in positions of authority over children.

What we're teaching them is that the machines legitimately may judge us, shape us and control us. It's the worst possible lesson to teach a generation that will encounter very sophisticated A.I. in their lifetimes.

Now is the time to teach them that A.I "personalities" are mere tools, not people.

Google isn't doing anything wrong here. It's a weird problem. And, in fact, it's off-putting for adults to hear children berate, insult or be rude to a voice that sounds like a human adult.

But this is a cultural fork in the road, and we need to choose the right path. We can teach kids that A.I. are sentient beings to be obeyed and respected. Or we can teach them that A.I. "personalities" are a constructed delusion.

Don't teach your kids to obey machines.

iCloud spam is the new Windows laptop sticker

For years, Apple fans taunted Windows users over the fact that most Windows laptops came with garish, shameless, ugly, sloppily applied stickers saying "Intel inside" or "Windows 7" or "Lenovo Enhanced Experience." Or whatever. 

Worse, they were often applied with a semi-permanent glue that made them hard to remove. 

Apple users correctly pointed out that Apple would never do something so tasteless, ugly and shameless on Apple laptops. Apple hardware is elegant artwork. In fact, the "out of the box" experience for Apple products, including Apple laptops, is pure, elegant, convenient and somewhat thrilling. 

That's why it's so confusing that Apple does what is essentially the equivalent of ugly stickers: They spam and harass users without mercy over iCloud passwords and upgrades. 

I'm guessing that most Apple users get harassed constantly via email and pop-up messages to upgrade and pay for iCloud storage, or enter or change their iCloud password. 

It's possible to make the harassment stop, but almost nobody knows how to do it. 

This is called "dark patterns" interface design, where companies design products to trap you into giving them what they want at your expense. 

The OS installation process on any kind of Mac involves additional harassment about iCloud usage and changing passwords and more. 

Like Windows laptop stickers, it's a form of spam marketing that's supposed to fly under the radar of unacceptability. It's just a little thing, so why would you care enough to complain?

But I complain for the same reason I complained about Windows laptop stickers. It's cheesy. It's ugly. It's greedy. And it's annoying.

That's what I think. What do you think? 

Amazon is building a home robot


Amazon is building a home robot, according to Mark Gurman  and Brad Stone writing for Bloomberg. 

Codenamed "Vesta," the project is headed personally by Amazon’s Lab126 chief Gregg Zehr. Amazon has been working on the project for years, but has recently started hiring aggressively, according to job listings

Prototypes could be tested in homes as early as this year and products could ship as early as next year. 

The robot will reportedly be able to navigate a home like a self-driving car. 

The stock price of robot maker iRobot fell on the news

Interestingly, Amazon is already a robotics powerhouse. They make their own warehouse robots, which are the life-blood of Amazon's business. 

Turns out haptics has its own uncanny valley

An article in Science Robotics claims that virtual reality experiences can produce an "uncanny valley of haptics."

The "uncanny valley" phenomenon is normally reserved for robotics, where the closer a humanoid robot gets to realistically imitating a human, the more it creeps out real humans. 

One example is that if two separate handheld controllers provide haptic sensations in a specific way, the user experiences that feeling not in their hands, but in the space between their hands. This is a trick of the brain, which assumes the sensations have not two sources, but one source, and places that source between the hands. 

Why Deadpool is the answer to superhero fatigue


I'm suffering from superhero fatigue. Are you? 

The first and most obvious reason is that there are just too many superhero movies. 

The second reason is that too many of them bring together many superheroes into a single movie. They're churning out this brand of movie so fast they don't even have time to give characters like Aqua Man their own movie before dragooning him into Justice League movies. They don't even have time to CGI-out Superman's mustache competently. 

Third, this bringing together of superheroes makes no sense. It pits heros with weak powers against strong ones — Batman vs. Superman. Gimme a break. 

Fourth, they're too self-serious. Some have subtle joking around. Some, like Thor: Ragnarok, are outright comedies. But most demand that we take too seriously a bunch of men in tights. 

Fifth, they've fallen into the trap that the stakes must grow higher and higher with every new movie. In the old days, Superman was just trying to save Lois Lane. Eventually, the entire world and fate of humanity was in danger. Now, even that's not enough. Now half the universe has be in peril. It's trotted out so mechanically that they've actually gotten us to not really care about the fate of half the universe. 

That's why Deadpool is so refreshing. It's constantly referring to, and making a mockery of, the tropes and themes of all comic book movies. 

It's also comically creative. Case in point: The upcoming Deadpool has a "superhero" named Peter who joins the "X-force" (which Deadpool calls "a super duper fucking group") not because he has super powers, but because he "just saw the ad." (Peter has his own Twitter account, by the way.) In a cinematic world overpopulated by ridiculous super heroes with super powers, Peter is the hero we need. 

Another superhero named "Domino" has the superpower of luck. She's just really, really lucky. Wonderful!

Ryan Reynolds is perfect for the role, too. Most of the comic acting in the movie has to be done through body language, because you can't see his face. Reynolds is really good at it.

I'm really looking forward to Deadpool 2, and I'm not looking forward to any other superhero movie. 

Facebook makes a mockery out of Europe's new privacy law


Europe's GDPR requires companies like Facebook to ask permission before using your personal data or applying face recognition to your pictures. Facebook is making changes to comply, which it will roll out globally.

Now Facebook is pretending to ask permission with a dialog box that requests permission and offers an "Accept and continue" button, but no button to decline. The word "continue" is designed to make user's think that continuing to use Facebook requires the "Accept" part. 

Instead of the option to "Decline," the dialog offers a "manage data settings" button, which puts up another barrier to opting out. If you click that button again — the same option you have already selected — only then can you choose to opt out. 

This is classic "dark patterns" design, which is to use interface design to trick users into doing what's in the company's interest, but not the user's. 

That's not the end of it. If you do opt out, Facebook will come back later to try to convince you to opt back in. 

"Dark patterns" is an example of how companies use and cultivate user ignorance as a necessary part of their business model.

Here comes "parallel reality" computing!


A startup called Misapplied Sciences has developed technology, which it calls “parallel reality,” that enables hundreds of people to look at a single screen and see completely different, customized views. I could look at a screen and see information in English, while the person standing next to me sees the same information in Mandarin and a third person sees French. Or, for that matter, I could see my texts and the others could see theirs.

"Parallel reality" technology could bring us something like augmented reality, but without the glasses.

How one artists sees social networks


Digital and photography artist Mike Campau has created a series called "Antisocial," which represents social networking sites as neon signs surrounded by darkness and desolation.

He's invented a slogan for each social net. Facebook's, for example, is "The Place to Go and Make Everyone Think Your Life is Great."

If a user doesn’t know they gave consent, did they?


Android users trying to #DeleteFacebook discovered that Facebook had been harvesting metadata from their phone calls and text sessions. That’s kind of a big deal.

Facebook says users granted permission for the harvesting. But recently, TeamBlind surveyed 1,300 Android and Facebook users and asked them if they gave permission to share metadata with Facebook. 89 percent said no.  

To me, this raises several important questions.  

First, what is Facebook’s responsibility to make sure people understand such things? Most users I know habitually breeze through the legal mumbo jumbo when accepting terms and conditions. They choose not to read them. On the other hand, the “readability” of such documents is determined entirely by Facebook. Non-lawyers often struggle to focus the mind on jargon-filled lawyer talk. If Facebook knows this and presents unreadable permissions, they’re using obfuscation to get something of monetary value from users while knowing that most users will be unaware of the extraction. If Facebook doesn’t know this, are they incompetent?   

Second, and more importantly, if consent is given technically, but not consciously, was consent really given? (I’m not talking about a legal standard. I’m talking about a philosophical or ethical one.) Is it possible to give consent without knowing you did so? 

Here comes “virtual wearables”


I’m always telling people, “look, people: Everyone is going to want to wear augmented reality glasses all day, every day, and one day augmented reality glasses will replace the smartphone as the main device we rely on.”

And people tell me: “You’re nuts.”  

The reason the public doesn’t accept this future is that they understand the “costs” of wearing augmented reality glasses — expensive, inconvenient, potentially bulky and, above all, socially unacceptable — but they don’t understand the benefits.  

Which is to say they haven’t experienced what it feels like to augment reality in a seamless way, which is possible only through glasses. Once people experience great augmented reality, I think they’re going to want it. 

This video, tweeted by Magic Leap designer Keiichi Matsuda, demonstrates one of many new concepts coming for augmented reality. 

Which is this: Once you have augmented reality wearables, all other wearables can be virtual.  

In this case, a flick-of-the-wrist gesture brings up a pop-out menu that pops out from your actual hand. 

You could also imagine wristwatches and countless other “devices” that appear to be connected to the self. 

Mixed-reality startup Magic Leap is even developing an open source reference platform called “North Star,” which enables developers to build virtual wearables for Magic Leap’s platform. The “North Star” feature that enables this is called “Power Hands,” for which Magic Leap built an app called “Virtual Wearables.”

If done right, this will be very intuitive. One obvious application is that you check the time on your watch as always. Except the checking-the-time gesture actually produces a virtual watch on your wrist displaying the current time.  

What other “virtual wearable” applications can you imagine? 

Two free apps take productivity to the next level

The greatest productivity tool ever invented was a cup of coffee (or four cups, as in the picture here, which is what I got in Istanbul when I ordered "a cappuccino with three shots of expresso.")

Beyond coffee we rely upon some kind of software for optimizing output. But which software? 

I've wasted many dollars over the years after getting inspired by some app or application idea, jumping in with all fours, buying a subscription or paying the app fee, only to later wander away from the tool because it wasn't quite right. 

Too many productivity tools lock you in, and get in your way with too many features or too much interface navigation. 

The thing you rarely hear about productivity tools is that they really do need to "feel" right. "Feel," in fact, is everything. And many of them don't "feel" right. 

My favorite example is Evernote. Theoretically, the service is ideal. You can store anything, search for it later and do all kinds of powerful things. Sadly, there's something about Evernote that bugs me. I can't put my finger on what, exactly — the interface design, colors or something — but it's this irritation that prevents me from using it. 

I install all kinds of tools, try them, use them and usually end up not using them for any number of reasons. 

However, I've recently discovered two free tools that I won't be wandering away from. I love them. They're close to perfect for what I need. They work. They're minimal. They stay out of the way. And most importantly, they're not "smart" (there's no half-baked A.I. wrenching control out of my hands). (Sadly, they're both available only for Apple users. Sorry, Android and Windows fans.)

OK, here they are: 


Effortless is a free MacOS app that holds your to do list, and automatically adds a timer function. 

The timer is activated when your to-do item has a number at the end. As in: 

"Get to zero inbox 30"

That means the task is "Get to zero inbox" and the allotted time is 30 minutes. 

If that's the top item on the list, the timer starts instantly and automatically, with the full task appearing on your menu bar. That item also functions as a drop-down menu, where you can "add 5 minutes," pause the task or declare that it's completed. (When complete, the next item on the list begins its own timer.) 

All Effortless functions are launchable with keystrokes. 

When a timer runs out, the task blinks between the task information and a row of dashes, plus a non-annoying and brief alarm sound. The blinking gets your attention. 

I like this way more than Pomodoro type timer apps, which tend to dictate how long your tasks are allowed to be, and also don't show you the whole task or get your attention well enough when the task is done. 

A countdown timer drives you to work faster and stick to your schedule. It also educates you about how much actual time various tasks takes. For example, I allotted 30 minutes to the writing of this post, and it took me an hour. I'll be more realistic next time. 

Effortless is a winner. 


Noto is a free iPhone app that makes it simple to email yourself. (Additional features cost $1.99)

I embrace aspects of the "Getting Things Done" system, premier among them is the practice of one single collection point for all incoming tasks. I use email for that collection poing. 

So when I'm out and about, and think of something I want to remember to do, I send myself an email. 

Sometimes I want to send my wife a reminder, too — or she's got her hands full and asks me to send her a reminder of something. 

Noto has this covered. 

The unique feature of Noto is the Tinder-like action of swiping. By swiping across the writing surface, you send your note to the email address you add to its settings. 

Swiping left or right can, if you choose, send to two different email addresses. For me, swiping right goes to me and swiping left goes to my wife. (You can add additional addresses by using force-touch gestures.) 

A button on the writing surface lets you take a picture or choose a picture from your photos. This is super helpful as well. For example, lets say I see a poster for a beer festival I'd like to consider going to. By taping on Noto, taping the picture button, snapping a pic then swiping right, I get not only the reminder about the festival in my email inbox, but all the information, too — dates, location, URL, etc. 

My only criticism or request for Noto is that it needs to do a better job dealing with voice notes. Right now, they leave it to the built-in functionality of the keyboard, which is a tiny button and which often requires a second try. I'd like to see a dedicated voice button, because this is a faster way to capture. The email should include both a transcription and a link to the audio. I'd happily pay more for that feature. 

In any event, Noto is awesome and has become the best way I've found for the all-important tasks of sending email to myself. 

Why you should use email for social networking

Everybody uses Facebook because everybody uses Facebook. But lately Facebook seems to be turning into a distracting, time-wasting and manipulative “surveillance machine” that does more harm than good.

The solution is to use email as your interface to Facebook and all the other social networks and do via email what you used to do on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

Here's how to do it.

Peeps beer idea resurrected for Easter


The Collective Brewing Project in Forth Worth, Texas, is resurrecting the idea of Peeps-flavored beer, for some reason.

Called "Peep This Collab," this shark-jumping sour ale is made with real Peeps and edible glitter. 

The idea copies the Peeps beer invented by Colorado's Barrels & Bottles Brewery three years ago. They made an English-style bitter with Peeps added

A New York-based brewery called Hemauer Brewing Co. came out with a beer last Easter called "Peep Show," a Golden Ale.

This is the next illogical progression from the trend of beer and Peeps parings that occur in tap rooms across the nation, including the Phoenix Ale Brewery Central Kitchen last year.

Of course, the lazy press is reporting the Collective Brewing Project beer as if it's a new thing. 

It's time to create your own social network


Elon Musk deleted the Facebook pages of both Tesla and SpaceX yesterday. Apparently he didn't want to be associated with a discreditable outfit like Facebook. 

It was easy for Musk to do. Twitter would have been much harder to leave. 

The trouble is that social networks like Facebook have made us dependent. We have to work really hard just to reach 10% of our fans. If we want to reach 20%, we have to pay Facebook for that.

And now Facebook has proved itself to be a reputation-damaging social network. 

What to do? 

It's time to build our own social networks using old-school technologies: email newsletters, RSS feed subscriptions to blogs and podcasts. 

Here's what you need to know.

Amazon patent lets you control delivery drones with gestures

 This drawing is from the actual Amazon patent. No, really!

This drawing is from the actual Amazon patent. No, really!

Amazon was granted a patent for the use of frantic hand-waving as a way to control delivery drones. 

Here's an excerpt from the actual patent:

"The management system may be configured to receive human gestures via the sensor device and, in response, instruct the propulsion device to affect an adjustment to the behavior of the unmanned aerial vehicle. Human gestures may include visible gestures, audible gestures, and other gestures capable of recognition by the unmanned vehicle.”

The application was filed in 2016, but awarded this week.

The idea, as I understand it, is that as an Amazon delivery drone hovers over your house with the AA batteries you ordered, you can control where it lands by running out on the lawn, waving your arms and shouting, "land here!, land here!"

Hololens gets a 'Blade Runner' girlfriend


A company called 3D Hologroup has released an app for Microsoft’s Hololens and Meta Vision’s Meta 2 called 3D Holo Girlfriend. They promise a Magic Leap version soon.

They're also promising a new "girlfriend" each week. 

The product was built in collaboration with, and they're looking for beta testers. 

The company plans A.I. that will enable these holographs to be more interactive. 

This kind of thing was always inevitable. Still, I don't want to see weirdos on the subway enjoying a "date" with their invisible girlfriends.